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Brainstorm: Lives of the Mind John L. Jackson Jr.

Are We Entitled to All Our 'Opinions'?

Pastor James Manning is a Harlem-based preacher (born and raised in North Carolina) who has become something of a youtube phenomonen this election season. Clips from his controversial sermons describing Barack Obama as “evil” and calling him “a long-legged Mack Daddy” who simply “pimps white women and black women” have gone viral this year, turning him into something of a media sensation. He even got a chance to do the national talk-show circuit, including an extended segment on Fox News that actually found right-winger Sean Hannity genuinely mortified by Manning’s demonizations of Obama (and his dismissals of Obama’s mother and father as “whoring trash”).

As someone who has conducted ethnographic research in Harlem, New York, I can say that Manning is quite recognizable to me as part of a vibrantly counter-cultural “Black Public Sphere” that often uses spiritual and religious narratives to make socio-political arguments about contemporary American life.

I’ve already written about some of his interlocutors on those New York City streets. They constitute an eclectic culture of street-corner debate that includes members of the Nation of Islam, the Five Percent Nation, various versions of Black Hebrewism (Manning’s church also worships on Saturdays), and more Gnostic/obscure forms of socio-spiritual collectivity such as the Nuwaubian Nation of Moors and the Egyptian Church of Karast/Christ. A lot of those groups have curbside vending operations, tabletops where they sell books about their beliefs, CD’s, DVD’s, artwork, and various health-related items.

I only bring Manning up because I had listened to his homiletic rants during the months leading up to the election, but I only recently got a chance to hear him respond to Obama’s victory. Manning gave an interview on Howard Stern’s radio show this week where he defended his claim that Obama is profoundly “evil” and only pretending to be a Christian. He argued that Obama and Oprah represent the “two beasts” prophesied in the Bible, dismissing Oprah as a “Babylonian Whore.”

When challenged on these contentions, Manning maintained that he really believes what he’s saying in his heart of hearts (which I’m sure he does), and that all people are entitled to their beliefs — except, evidently, Obama, Oprah, and Jeremiah Wright, the latter also being dismissed as little more than a liar and faux-Christian.

What an interview — and on so many levels. I am trying to move beyond the desire to simply chalk up all of Manning’s rants to sour grapes and “playa hating.” This isn’t just about someone with a civil-rights era sensibility trying to beat back a young turk, at least one that the Civil Rights veterans didn’t have the power to vet themselves. Ask Newark Mayor Cory Booker about what that looks and feels like.

Ironically, Manning and Jeremiah Wright also share some of the very same religious mentors, including one of the fathers of black liberation theology, James Cone. This could be a “familiarity breeds contempt” issue. Indeed, the aforementioned spiritual groups on Harlem’s sidewalk spaces share some foundational presuppositions, but they usually seem most adamant about loudly highlighting the aspects of their cosmologies and world views that separate them from everyone else out there.

But what was most troubling about Manning’s post-election position was that he wanted to offer up his Obama “beliefs” as similar to any other opinions people might disagree on. The problem is that his evidence is so non-falsifiable. Manning is most concerned with the fact that African-Americans seem to think about Obama as a kind of messianic figure, and he likens Obama to Hitler. But the Harlem preacher seems to ignore the fact that Hitler’s ideology was explicit and clear. Listen to his Nazi speeches and you hear the hate that Hitler turned into social policy. Manning has to read between the lines to find Obama’s evil. He has to claim that the President-Elect is lying—that you can’t actually trust what he’s saying as an indication of what he really believes and represents.

But what do we do with political beliefs that are so unwaveringly anti-empirical. Manning’s evidence is Biblical, and he reads Obama as an instantiation of prophesy. Of course, he isn’t the first person to make that move. But just because you can characterize the defamation of someone else’s character as your “opinion” doesn’t mean that it is as reasonable as other positions we’d label personal opinions. Some things are actually “opinions” (and can be open to dispute). A non-falsifiable theory about another person’s intrinsic (even genetic and pre-ordained) evil and demonic nature is something else entirely, no? Doesn’t it stretch the definition of opinion beyond all usefulness.

Posted at 12:17:57 PM on November 14, 2008 | All postings by John L. Jackson Jr.

Comments

  1. I forget who originally said it but it applies here: “You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.”

    — cfox · Nov 14, 01:58 PM · #

  2. I agree with cfox…

    In addition, I would add that with the Gift of Speech comes a tremendous responsibility, for with the tongue lives are both saved and lost.

    I feel sorry for those who exercise the “freedom of speech” without the responsibility that accompanies it, for, whatever we set in motion eventually finds its way back home.

    — Mr. Muhammad · Nov 14, 02:06 PM · #

  3. It is not as if this is unique to the anti-Obama brigade.

    Surely the problem centres on the free availability of global broadcast, rather than the (50 years ago) auto-censoring processes of monolithic media and effective slander/libel laws.

    — probligo · Nov 14, 02:18 PM · #

  4. I don’t believe that we need to concern ourselves with Manning’s irrational beliefs and rants. But I am deeply worried by his approving audience. Where are their critical skills? How can they listen to such invective coming from someone who claims to speak for their God? What kind of God do they believe in if this is his voice?

    — perplexed · Nov 14, 04:41 PM · #

  5. Opinions are like butt-holes — everybody’s got one!

    — Amanda Huggenkiss · Nov 14, 04:51 PM · #

  6. Prof. Jackson, I believe you have put your finger on an important cultural development. For years many of us have struggled with students’ insistence that their version of reality, regardless of the facts, is an “opinion” to which they are entitled, and which – they further insist – is potentially superior to that supported by the facts. Further, they often use this egocentric world view as a means of devalorizing what they consider to be simply the “opinion” of their professor. Maddening, indeed. In fact, downright dangerous.

    — Anti-hypocrisy advocate · Nov 14, 07:19 PM · #

  7. I do believe that Pastor Mannings words are true. People are calling Obama our next savior and treating him like he is Jesus Christ. Obama might be a great speaker but Satan himself will lure you in with his promises to.

    — GodsChild · Nov 14, 09:49 PM · #

  8. Nice:

    “5. Opinions are like butt-holes — everybody’s got one!

    “— Amanda Huggenkiss · Nov 14, 04:51 PM ·

    “6. Prof. Jackson, I believe you have put your finger on an important cultural development…

    “— Anti-hypocrisy advocate · Nov 14, 07:19 PM”

    — Freudian Slip · Nov 15, 09:13 AM · #

  9. This anti-empirical strain is hardly new. Billy James Hargis and his Christian Crusade argued that the Constitution was a communist document; Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson sat on a couch and told us that 9/11 was the fault of lesbians and the ACLU; and state governments everywhere still have to contend with Flintstonian biological theory (the idea that people might have had dinosaurs in their yards).

    I saw a wonderful bumper sticker years ago, and I still find its sentiments useful. “Radical Agnostic — I Don’t Know, and Neither Do You.”

    To AHA, I’ve recently been introduced to some work that I should have known of long ago, by the educational theorist (not football player) William Perry. He argues that the shift from belief in hard and incontrovertible “answers” to a complete relativism is a common developmental outcome of early college education. Our job in part is to help people understand that facts exist, that different interpretations of those facts are possible, and that certain arguments are more supportable than others. It’s frustrating, I know, to be in the midst of people in that full-relativism mode, but that’s the work we signed up for.

    — Herb · Nov 16, 11:26 AM · #

  10. On Comment 9:

    Actually, I think that rampant self-centered opinion-ism in today’s youth is attributable rather to the “whole language” and “self-esteem” movements in the schools, which seem to train a student that the self is the center of the verbal and cognitive universe.

    So, yes, relativism is indeed more likely a higher education phenomenon. However, the schools really should learn and teach that there is a difference between empirically verifiable fact and personal opinion, that evidence and argument are not the same, etc.

    — Anti-hypocrisy advocate · Nov 16, 01:29 PM · #

  11. I agree with Herb (#9): Full-relativism is a method of making sense of the world that is common for young adults (I don’t think these developmental stages are limited to just college students). So much information. So many contradictions in the world. Absolute principles (which are very attractive to 15-17 year olds) start to look rigid in the fact of the world’s complexity. But I think most young people get over the idea of opinions always trumping facts pretty fast. The danger for us professors is that we get a new batch of 19 year olds every semester, and we never get to follow the students through to 30 or 40 year old maturity.

    And then every once in a while someone like Manning comes along. A particularly stupid 17 year old in a grown man’s body. Now that really does make a humanist lose heart.

    — Shar · Nov 16, 11:12 PM · #

  12. I think I read this inscribed on a marble building once:

    Education: the process whereby cocksure ignorance is transformed into thoughtful uncertainty.

    Too bad some people—at all levels—refuse to be educated.

    — Phil · Nov 17, 09:22 AM · #

  13. Just because you HAVE one doesn’t mean you need to BE one. (ref: #5)

    — Joe Erwin · Nov 19, 08:22 AM · #

  14. Opinions are like assholes: some are harder to wipe clean than others.

    Opinions are like assholes: some are near pricks.

    Opinions are like assholes: some sound like they came from Uranus.

    Opinions are like assholes: some are covered with hemmorhoids.

    — Dee Dee · Nov 20, 01:14 PM · #

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